Black bear damage frustrates farmers
Vibrant green peanut fields littered with stark, bare patches are a familiar sight for Southampton County farmer M.L. Everett Jr.
The damage to his fields is caused by black bears searching for areas with mature peanuts in loose, sandy soil. They pull up peanuts and “chow down on them like they’re at a buffet,” he said.
“They can do a lot of damage,” noted Everett, a member of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation board of directors.
He added that recent black bear damage hasn’t been as bad as the 3 acres he’s lost to bears in the past, but he noticed a new trend. They’ve been eating peanut seeds shortly after planting.
“That’s the first time we’ve ever had them go right down the row, paw up the seed, and eat it.” He’s also seen bears rip up cotton bales and demolish peanut hay, leaving huge messes in their wake.
A black bear management study conducted last fall by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and Virginia Farm Bureau revealed one-third of agricultural producers have problems with black bears. The study gathered input from Virginia residents, bear hunters and farmers to assist the DWR in developing its 2021-2030 Black Bear Management Plan.
Most black bear issues are concentrated on farms in the Shenandoah Valley and Southwest Virginia, but “it’s spreading outward,” said Mack Smith, president of Rockbridge County Farm Bureau.
“The numbers are sort of exploding throughout the state,” he said.
Smith, who’s been discussing black bear management with the DWR, said the amount of damage they cause to corn crops is in the “tens of thousands of dollars.
“A bear will just sit there and grab all the stalks of corn that he can reach,” he said, frustrated. “The bear usually just takes one bite out of an ear, then grabs another ear and takes another bite.” Soon, nothing but circles of downed, half-eaten corn remain.
Harvesting equipment won’t pick up the corn lying on the ground, and when Smith plants soybeans the next year, he must spray the field with an extra product to kill the volunteer corn.
“They hit my wallet twice,” he said.
There is no one-size-fits-all way to manage black bears. Farmers can apply for damage permits to kill problem bears—something both Everett and Smith agree isn’t the ideal solution. Smith has suggested using dogs to chase bears out of fields, hoping enough harassment would keep them away.
While possible solutions are still being discussed, Everett said he’s grateful farmers and DWR are working together to try to find ways to successfully manage black bears.
“They understand the problem and certainly are trying to find a solution that would work for all of us,” he said.